Taxing Times in Greece

Insult and injury are constant companions when living in Greece and navigating her soul-killing bureaucracy. This gross bureaucracy is one of the most extremely wasteful and parasitic parts of Greek society, and the one that should have been killed off in this crisis. It is not, and instead, it and the rest of the state sector are killing Greece.

The slew of new taxes, known in Greece by the expressive Turkish word, haratzi, recalls the “head tax” required of all Greeks and other Balkan Christians during the Ottoman era. The word expresses the disdain Greeks feel for these many new taxes, levied in large part because for so long, so many taxpayers evaded taxation, particularly the richest people and often as not with government connivance.

The payback has now arrived with interest. This in itself is not necessarily bad as the Greek debt must be controlled, except that, as usual in Greece, the tax has been corrupted, it is ridiculously inefficiently collected, and, as usual, the very staff collecting the taxes are for the most part as rude and as secure in their cushy state positions as before, while the Greek private sector is being choked to death. Here the Greek state, and especially its public sector, shows the full disdain it hasfor the Greek population. Reform remains an illusion.

Consider the story of one middle class Greek in one of Athens’ northern suburbs, and his saga in the process of trying to pay one such tax. Three hours’ wait, no internet payment option, no real process or procedure. An old man, who waited for a similar length of time, asked for the bathroom. The Little Caesars behind the desk informed him the restrooms were reserved for employees and the unfortunate man had to relieve himself outside! The Greek state knows full well how to humiliate her citizens.

Not only is the whole process a waste of citizens’ time and humiliating, it is also horribly inefficient. In an e-commerce era, payments can be done safely over the web. The benefits to the collector, the Greek state, are substantial. It reduces physical cash collections, automates and concentrates balances as quickly as possible, while at the same time giving the payer as many payment options as possible. This ensures quick collection of funds, minimized the security issues associated with cash, and provided for multiple, convenient, and safe ways of concentrating funds, as well as a more secure audit trail.

Having said the above, perhaps the answer to “why doesn’t the state encourage this?” is rather obvious. The process has suited the public sector all too well, though not the public. Of course, the official lines are different, such as “Greeks like to pay in cash, and have the stamped receipt that they paid.” That may have held water in the past, but internet penetration in households is now such that every Greek bank provides such a service, and the Greek State, now at the precipice of bankruptcy, could easily invest in a safe system to collect payment via credit or debt card. Greece has belatedly entered the current century by allowing for some payments, including some taxes, to be done online through the banks. There are grandiose plans to expand use of new IT across the Finance Ministry. But bill clarifications or disputes all have to be done in person — since tax bills usually come without explanatory letters –, and here the state exacts its vengeance (for what I do not know) on its citizens.

Perhaps the answer is facing you across the till at any Greek government office. The pocket pasha sitting in his chair believes that his time and job is simply more valuable than yours and nobody but a few newly-assigned Troika experts seems to be challenging these people to reorganize based on productivity. The Greek state, which Greeks (and bondholders) fund, seems to agree. The state even humiliates you when you try to do your civic duty.

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10 thoughts on “Taxing Times in Greece

  1. Living as a xenos in Greece I’ve transmuted this humiliating process into an opportunity to digest a book, do a bit of people watching, have conversations with strangers, negotiate place-keeping if I need to go out to find a loo – part of the old world ‘charm’ of beloved Greece and fruitful source of anecdote about ‘quaint’ Hellenic incompetence. If my dealings with HMRC in UK were off-line, or even requiring land mail, I’d be feeling degraded. I’d be fuming, enraged – close to despair. I must stop being so patronisingly tolerant of bureaucratic incompetence (and petty malice) in Greece. Trouble is, the better off seldom experience this ‘incompetence’ knowing it is pre-Φακελάκι prevarication, easily by-passed by greasing a palm or two…

  2. Thanks Simon but you know better. You get what you pay for, in most places, except in Greece where the taxpayers are forced to support a gargantuan public sector that provides minimal returns for them in terms of “public service.” Look at the bribes needed in the health sector and the private “frontisterio” industry for proof. The first time my Greek-born wife saw a “Your tax dollars at work” sign on a highway project in the US she nearly fell out of the car’s bucket seat. What a concept……

    • Time to stop playing the “we-were-subjugated-to-the-Turks-for 400-years” card, so we have an engrained lack of respect for authority and for the so-called authorities to stop playing the role kleftish opportunists and cultivate probity in public service. Trouble is such cultural shifts can take decades and longer. That said, strange how swiftly the the Greek diaspora has developed a reputation for competence, talent and success in the private and public spheres of other countries. Half my family is Greek. I’m inordinately proud of both their origins (and the connection it gives me to Greece) and their success outside Greece. It’s not the people; its the bloody system and its apparatchiki skulking behind the wonderful virtues of filotimo, arete and philoxenia.

  3. Greece has good laws about bureaucracy, e-government, etc. But making laws is easy. So, making a law about the things you mention, is piece of cake. A group of persons in a large room say yes, or no, and if the majority say yes, you get a piece of paper. But then, you have to make something with the paper. In Greece, they don’t know what to do with it. They lack the power, the will or the wisdom, or whatever, to make things function.
    In most coutries in Europe people can pay their bills in the internet, water, elecrticity, taxes, everything. You have to pay it, anyway, but you don’t have to waste time in offices. Time, in a period of chrisis, is precious to work, get a job, be with the family, etc. Above all that, is a simple question of respecting the citizens.
    Balkanizater, send your post to the greek government, please.

  4. Folks, thanks for your posts. Carmelo, I would love to send the post to the government, but where? Who listens? There is no civic culture of listening and acting on citizen complaints and initiatives. Instead, the state corrupts and coopts. I will give your son/nephew/godchild a government job, etc.

  5. If I may add my personal experience to this discussion:
    I have tried in the past three and a half years to start a business here in Greece. I am English, I am told relatively intelligent and above all I feel, honest. The business was a charter sail boat. In any other country a very simple proposition. After exhaustive efforts to the extreme and a high personal investment both financial and emotional I have had to stop trying before I went both mad and bankrupt. At all levels dealing with government representatives be it the port police, the tax authorities and various other officials, I came across absolute incompetence, blatant dishonesty and a total lack of interest in trying to help establish what could only bring much needed revenue into the area where I live and in my own small way into the country as a whole.
    Since throwing in the towel I have attempted to start a further two businesses and have met with the same result. No, maybe, come back later, dont know, he is not here, your papers are incomplete etc etc. All this from people who appear at ‘work’ around 9 am, light a cigarette in the office, drink a coffee, shrug their shoulders and go off at around 1pm, take the whole of August off and retire at 50 on a very generous pension. This is more than ridiculous, it is positively farcical!…and sadly all to true. If this situation does not change this beautiful country will go spectacularly bust. Will this post make a difference? Probably not. Me?, I have put my house on the market, and will leave this beautiful place. I just started a business in the UK. One phone call to the UK tax authority, a very helpful official on the line, 5 minutes later bingo. The UK just made some money and so did I. Balkanizater…thanks for inspiring this post.

  6. Jerry, thanks for this. Great illustration of how Greece loses due to these losers. Multiply your story by the hundreds of thousands and you get today’s state of affairs. Greece’s deficit is not financial, it is civic. The UK wins and so do you, rightfully. The concept of win-win is totally alien here.

  7. I run a success ful business here and have been doing so for 10 + years, I am half greek and half Brit, a typical “Greek Salad”….. and I LOVE THIS COUNTRY, I am more greek than english.. which often helps and often causes problems…I firstly have to congratulate on this article and have already shared it on my companys facebook site and would like to reproduce it on my company blog and link to it form our web page….. the tourist public must appreciate that it is the government that is hurting the country and not the people, we the working stiff need, want and desire their presence in this country so that we can show it off for its good and great parts.
    Hopefully though educating the tourist he will return, and realize that the working people have not changed nor has our great country side and its islands. So please return and ignore the thieves and charlatans who lie and run our country, let us the working stiff show you our fine hotels, amazing islands and stunning country side so that we can make it a holiday to remember. ( and help the economy a little… 🙂

  8. If I were the one having to write this content, all these readers would be disappointed. It is a good thing you’re the writer and you bring fresh concepts to us all. This really is intriguing.

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